Category: writingtips

NaNoWriMo – 7 Tips to Tackle 50,000 Words

NaNo-2015-Participant-BannerNovember is fast approaching. The mad dash to write an entire novel in 30 days is just over the horizon. I’ve been participating in National Novel Writing Month since 2006 and I’ve been the Municipal Liaison of the Massachusetts::Metrowest since 2011. In my years of doing this crazy project, I’ve learned some things that work best (for me) so I’ll take a moment to dispense some advice.

  1. Learn your software early. Every year there are dozens of people (myself included several years ago) that open their laptops on November 1st to try out their newest writing software. Even the simplest switch from Microsoft Word to its online equivalent, Google Docs, can be a jarring and difficult learning curve. It’s impossible to write when you’re not sure how to use your writing software. Take a few days to tinkering and test the software. See if you’re going to like it or if you should stick to what you know.
  2. Know your endgame. I don’t necessarily think you need to know the outcome of your book. I have never plotted for NaNo, at least not past the first few chapters. What I do think is necessary, where do I want the character to be. Do I want them to survive? Do I want them to fall in love? Do I want them to change their view on the world? Do I want the universe to win or implode? I never finish NaNo with the same endgame as I begin. My last book started with the idea of superheroes defeating the big-bad and yet somehow the story turned into characters facing the loss of their humanity. But when I was lost, I was able to ask myself, how do I get them there? The journey for me, is more important than the destination.
  3. Have a love affair with your character before November 1st. This year I knew the book I want to write. Kind of. I knew who the main character was. Kind of. He’s the average guy, in an average job, doing average things. Then the extraordinary happens. I wasn’t excited for him or his story. I thought about killing him and the book before it was even conceived. Then I wrote a short paragraph about him and his struggles. He became less ordinary. He has got some serious problems and he’s panicking as he tries to cope. I wrote the second paragraph (I did it as a journal entry he wrote at the suggestion of his therapist.) At the end of the journal entry, I understood Brian Gentile. He’s not ordinary. He’s desperate. He’s fallen from grace. He’s complicated. He’s a loving dad. He’s a hated divorcee. He’s real now, and I am incredibly excited to document his journey. I’m rooting for him.
  4. Research takes time (away from writing.) Worry about fully understanding your 15th Century Victorian garb later. Not sure where Main St. leads or what the cool kids of the 40’s were saying in casual conversation? It does not matter. Unless the research on Soviet Submarines is needed to write a story taking place on a Soviet Submarine, then it can be skipped. I wrote a book that takes place in the 1920’s and goodness knows I got my facts wrong. But facts can be corrected later. The characters saying, “Groovy” or “Sick” doesn’t matter at this point. You can beautify and enhance your setting later.
  5. Be willing to admit perfection is unrealistic. My first NaNo book is on cinderblocks in the back yard. It’s a disaster. The characters are predictable, and I got lost in the research (See #4) so the book continued to fall flat. I didn’t understand my world and at the end of the book I realized I was trying to justify garbage. It’ll stay on cinderblocks, and maybe I’ll set fire to the book, but, underneath the horrible writing of a lost cause, there is a plot that hasn’t been finished and may still find the light of day. I’m still proud I did it, and I’m thankful I have this idea dwelling in the back of my head. Perfection wasn’t an option, and it took me a while to grasp that, but in the end, it’s made me a better writer.
  6. Understand NaNo is a game. You ever play Monopoly with people and then play it with another group? Notice how nobody can decide on the same rules of the game? Everybody treats Free Parking differently. NaNo is similar. The goal is 50,000 words, but truth be told, you are the rule maker. Want to continue a work you’ve already started, then go for it. Want to write poetry, why not? Only make 20,000 words? You’re not a loser at the game of NaNo, you’re a winner of your edition of NaNo. I’ve always found the people who take NaNo seriously to be a bit out of touch with the spirit of the game. I wear a cowboy hat in NaNo because it imbues me with magical powers. True fact. Have fun with it, and when you find yourself not having fun, find a way to hold onto that childish joy that makes us all a little crazy. My favorite NaNo’ers are the ones who laugh at themselves. Have fun.
  7. You must write to write a novel. I saved the most obvious and the most difficult for the end. Every year I start November hearing great ideas for novels. People are so enthusiastic to tell me their ideas and I get caught up in the well laid mental diagrams they draw. However, by mid November I hear people still telling me their ideas instead of telling me about the writing they’ve done. I get nervous when I hear them still speaking about their idea. The best advice I’ve ever heard about life, “I wish I could tell my 16-year-old self, you have to practice the guitar to be a rock star.” The people who have been holding onto the “Great American Novel” for decades are thinkers, not writers. Writers must write.

So as you begin to think about the crazy journey in front of you, realize you’re amongst a supportive group who want you to succeed. We want to see your Orcs come to life and your Fifth grade Debutante come to life and grace the pages. We want you to finally ask yourself, “Did I just become a writer?” That moment for so many of us is a turning point in our lives and I’m proud to led the rally and watch people on December 1st say, “I finally did it.” Good luck, I have faith in you.


A Writer’s Review: Scrivener (Part 2)

I’ve fallen for Scrivener; we’re madly in love, and I appreciate how much it does to make my life better. While it sounds like sarcasm, it’s very much the reality at the moment. Having worked with several writing softwares, I think I’ve found the one that keeps my workflow flowing. It has ups and downs, but so far, the perks far outweigh any criticism I could have. So let me go through how I go about using Scrivener.

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It Makes Organization Easier

  • Multiple novels in one file. This is similar to the structure of most folder systems on the computer. You can see I can Suburban Zombie High in the Red Book and “The Reunion” in the Blue Book. These are two entirely different books that I now have the ability to store in one location. This makes my life easier as I’m not jumping between different documents. In a world that shares characters, locations, and reference items, I find it easiest to merge them into one location.
  • Split by chapter & by scene. I am currently working on my novel, and I find it extra helpful to be able to break up the scenes. This way I can know where my characters are at any given time. How often did I make them go to that place or have they been in one place too long? It makes their location visual which is extremely helpful for me.Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 12.42.39 PM
  • Index cards help visualize with the synopsis. When I’m working, I find I get caught up in the work and frequently need to revisit what happened earlier. I find rereading the chapter takes a while, and I don’t always obviously see what took place. Being able to write a synopsis for each chapter and see it visually makes this a breeze. By reading one or two sentences, I can figure out who was in a chapter, what took place, and where it happened. It prevents me from having to reread dozens of chapters (sometimes I would like to avoid when editing.)
  • You can categorize and label each section. I forget which chapters I worked on or what I did to them last. I don’t always edit in order of what I wrote. This allows me a simple way to click each chapter as, “Done” or “Needs Editing.” You can also group them by their status. These can be similar, or you can use labels for locations and status for what the status is of that chapter. They allow you to create custom labels so you can use it however you need it to work for you.
  • Keywords rock my world. I don’t know why, but as I’ve gotten into writing more novels, I care more about speed for simple things. When I want to find that scene a character was in, I can fly through keywords. It helps making searching much easier. I currently use it for my characters, but it could be combined with characters, scenes and so forth. This will help you figure out where your characters are geographically during the course of your novel!

Character Development

  • Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 1.02.31 PMYou can include photographs. I didn’t think I was asking for much. I wanted to have a character “sheet” and be able to attach a photo. It didn’t need to be big or detailed, just enough to jog my memory of what the character might look like. Scrivener offers that, and you can always add more photos in the resource section of the software.
  • You can customize your character templates. What do you want to include? Shoe size? Their lineage? Their vampire powers? You can create a template of your character needs and from then on, each of your sheets will have the necessary info on them. This helps if you have a specific set of needs, what better way than to tailor it to you?
  • Show all your characters for your series. I’m currently working with a three book series, and I want to keep track of my characters. I have the “living” pile, the “dead” pile, and piles for characters specific to only one book. Otherwise, this helps me remember who is still in the story. While this might seem outlandish, I have difficulty with remember six characters and I’m nearly up to thirty at this point. I sometimes forget what I had for breakfast.

Next post I’ll talk about how I’ve set up redundant saving and more about the actual writing component of Scrivener. While it has all these “writerly” features, you still need to be able to bang out your word count if you’re going to finish that novel.


A Writer’s Review: Writing Software

One of the first questions other writers ask me is, “What do you use to write?” There are a lot of options and each of them own a myriad of pro’s and con’s. I think to some extent, it is as personal a choice as the design on the notebook we used before we went digital. I have been at the front of adopting new writing software to test it out with a single pursuit in mind: find something that closely relates to my once cherished notebook.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 5.42.57 PMMicrosoft Word
Some people may scoff at the first and most obvious choice. It’s what many of us originally learned to use with the computer and it’s the dominant software in education so MSWord has a major perk: you know it. You know how to spell check, how to word count, how to start a new page. It’s easy in this manner. It also has some fantastic editing features such as “track changes” that lets you make temporary changes or suggestions along with adding notes for later down the line.

While this might make it the first choice, it has some short comings for me as a writer. I work on a Mac and the font renders so poorly it might as well be writing on an Atari. There is no way to organize your thoughts within the document, it only offers a writing platform. Visuals are somewhat miserable to include if you want to have reference photos. It also has no instant back up, though this can be remedied with the Cloud or through Dropbox.

Overall, it gets the job done in the fastest manner possible with some cool editing abilities.

Google Docs
Google tries to make this as straight to the point as absolutely possible and doesn’t offer some of the more bloated features of MSWord. It looks good on all platforms and is integrated with so many mobile devices it’s almost always within reach. It also has collaborative abilities far superior to any other option I’ve encountered. I also love that it has a history feature, because sometimes I hastily kill a character and decide I need to undo my murderous rampage a week later.

I transferred all my writing to Google Docs because of having them in a digitally safe place that would always be accessible. However, I’ve had my Gmail hacked before, and that made me nervous. I also go to a Starbucks for writing and frequently, as the bandwidth is struggling to keep up, it will disconnect me mid sentence and I can lose up to a paragraph. Once I’m disconnected I just smile and stare off into space. I also got caught up trying to keep it organized. While you can upload images for reference, it started to feel as if things were being kept in a dozen locations.

Overall, great for the versatility of platforms and for backing up, but still not quite the organizational tool I wanted.

Storyist
I liked this software. It gave me some really fun features up front. I love the notecards, I like a cork board. I’m an artist by trade so this gave me some of the abilities I use in the physical world. I like that I could include photos into character profiles and write short character bios. What I didn’t like was focused specifically on the structure of the writing document. I didn’t like the writing portion, and while I used it for planning, if I can’t do the one thing I’m supposed to do as a writer, time to reevaluate. It is also Mac specific software, which kind of knocks out a large chunk of the population.

Scrivener
I scoffed at Scrivener for a while. I tried to pick it up at the start of NaNo and felt that it was another piece of overbearing bloated software that provided more distractions than benefits. It’s benefits are pretty numerous as I’m currently working on a multi book series right now. I am able to keep the entire book in one Scrivener file, and break it up by chapters and/or scenes. It allows me to write some notes for characters as well as plots and I can include photos into both. Having a couple hundred thousand words means I have plots I’m already a bit fuzzy on. It helps me organize by synopsis, key words, and by plot. As this book is being written over several years, it helps me keep track of what is going on. While I haven’t used it yet, I’ve seen good reviews on it flowing the book for Kindle (something self-publishers know can be a headache.)

Cons aren’t long, but the biggest one is that it takes some time to learn. The learning curve isn’t steep, but I know many NaNo writers pick it up for the first time at the start of NaNo and quickly freak out and switch back to another software. It also has the ability to be distracting because of the other “fun” things it can do. It also doesn’t have an easy back up system and I have it saving to my Dropbox folder to guarantee its safety.

Overall, it’s the right piece of software for me at this point. I’ll be spending some time going over its more simplistic features and explaining out what I find to be the most beneficial pieces of the program in a future post.


Proof Copy Drowning in Ink

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I just received my first proof copy of I.Am.Maine. The knock of the UPS man made me jump out of my seat. I was excited to touch the book I had been slaving over for months. As I tore away the wrapping paper, it was glorious. It was the culmination of hours spent writing, editing and adjusting words. It was the pinnacle of my dedication to my craft. It was written by “eremy Flagg?”

I have spent plenty of time editing this book. I have rewritten phrases, sentences and even entire chapters. I have learned more about the English language in the past few months than I think I care to understand. When I was done with this book, I let it rest so I could regroup and edit again. I can recite large portions of this book having read it so many times.

It’s still not perfect, and it never will be until I have the physical copy in my hand. As a writer, I know that reading in context can help bring about revelations about poor word choices. As a graphic designer, I know each font, picture and spacing can be critical in aiding your reader along in their journey. This end user mentality requires you have a product in your hand similar to your reader so you can experience this as they do. This requires a proof copy of your book.

The things I’ve noticed in print I didn’t on screen:

  1. Photos translating from color to black and white need to be experienced in the actual book. Even color to color needs to make sure the resolution turns out a photo you’re happy with. The screen will never properly predict these changes as they’re based on the physical printing process.
  2. Margins never look as good as they do on the screen. Make sure paragraph indents don’t indent too far and that the gutter is given much-needed attention. Respect the safe zone of your page, things too close to the edge can be trimmed. Remember the rule: Close enough is not good enough, make it look intentional.
  3. Fonts are always beautiful on screen, but are they legible on the page? Will they maintain the same crisp quality you love so much on your screen? (Garamond is our friend.)
    White type on a black background can be a hazardous pain in the butt. With the black ink ever so slightly bleeding into the white of the letter, it can be difficult to see. Some printers are better than others as are some fonts versus others.
  4. Unless you’ve become adept at calibrating your monitor, an inch doesn’t always measure an inch. Measurements on screen are relative, and often not a true representation. Once you open the physical copy, it’s obvious that not all of your measurements turned out quite the way you wanted.
  5. I have started pre-orders for my book, and I want to say I’m in a rush to have this product in the hands of my readers. The realization is, if I rush through this and put it into their hands today, it will not be the final product I want it to be. I will not be proud to have this book under my belt and done. Instead, I will take my time, read it through, make my notes, make adjustments and order a final proof copy (I hope final) and do one last round of checks.

As the self-published market is a flood of books written by anybody with a computer, it is importance to remember the goal set for in writing. Whatever that goal, whether it be fame or fortune, it requires the final product to be solid. Take a moment, make your readers happy, edit your physical copy.


Practical Grammar Advice & Application (Book Review)

I am by no means an expert at grammar. I remember the exactly one quarter my senior year in English that we focused on grammar. Later as I would take creative writing classes in college, the focus would be on the content, not the grammar. While this hasn’t hindered me much during my process, as I’m preparing stuff for publication I absolutely feel it is causing me to not put my best foot forward. I have gone searching for books to help with the process such as Stunk & Whites Elements of Style and found that either they are extremely dry or focused on academic writing. I was thinking of resorting to taking another college class (which I might do regardless), and then I found Writers’ Devils.

Writers’ Devil by Dan Persinger was a monumental help in my writing. For me particularly, I needed help around the grammar of dialogue. I found other books focused too much on MLA, APA or Chicago/Tribune styles of writing and less on the creative aspects of fiction writing. The book gave guidance and clear examples. I say guidance because he is very straightforward when discussing “rules” and how they are not cookie cutter and nor will they work in every situation. He does however touch upon what I believe to be the bulk of creative writing.

Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 12.30.54 PMI can’t tell you a hanging modifier from split infinitives. It gives very little background on the terminology presented and instead spends the bulk of the book working on what it is and how it is used in fiction writing. Persinger is tolerant of writers who are lacking even the most basic skills and makes few presumptions in his writing. For the more skilled writer, he does a good job of not offending, but at the same time offering alternative suggestions to your style.

Who would I recommend this book to? I would suggest it to anybody who finds themselves spending more time using Grammarly or similar websites than you want to be. Some very simple tips have altered my grammar enough that I’m saving days on editing, which I would much rather spend on writing. His layout of the book is meant for fast reading and easy digestible information that doesn’t get wrapped up in unnecessary and cumbersome theoretical grammar. For a kindle book, and at $9.99, I have to say it’s a great first book to add to your arsenal if you’ve just written a draft of your novel. The only downside I found was that the book is relatively short. I know he picked popular topics and frequently made mistakes, but I would have continued reading more grammar faux-pas if he had written it.

 


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